July 16, 2013
July 16, 2013
Below are eight mini-hypotheses I've been entertaining, wondering how valid they are outside of my own experience or that of Japan:
1. Little boys and little girls
Does language interest or skill follow gender lines in a mixed-language family?
We are an international family. My wife is Japanese. I have a daughter and a son. I speak mostly Japanese to my wife but almost exclusively English to my children. My son has always responded to me only in English and has always been perfectly happy using English media, such as TV shows, English versions of games etc. My daughter almost never replies to me in English and seems to dislike English media, much preferring Japanese. My daughter understands my English well but is loathe to use it. Not only that, but my son’s English was better at the same age that my daughter is now.
So here’s the hypothesis I’m putting out: When families have dual language codes, boys tend to copy father’s language while girls see mother’s language as the ‘true tongue’. This seems to be consistent with other international families I know but, hey, maybe I live a cloistered life. Does this seem to be widely true? Not a universal, but a significant trend perhaps? I’m asking you…
2. 1st year vs. 2nd year students
It seems that almost everyone loves first year students. At any level. At any institution. First year students are eager, earnest, pliant, starry-eyed and bushy-tailed. They are untainted, pure, innocent, respectful, and obedient.
Switch to second year. Those students have now formed cliques. They know you and your foibles. They know what it takes to pass the class with the minimum effort. They’ve learned how to game the system from their seniors. The noble intentions that they entered with last year are put to rest. Postures change. They skip classes more. The work produced is more slipshod. They are more likely to challenge you or talk back, and not in that productive, give-and-take debate manner. There’s a tired been-there-done-that aura surrounding the classes. You’re no longer fresh or interesting to them.
Ok, I’m not saying that every first year class I’ve had has been angelic and the second year versions always diabolical but, generally speaking, the atmosphere of a first year class is palpably fresher and brighter than most second year sets. Or is it just me…?
3. The exotic local lingo from a distance vs. from the inside
When you don’t have hands-on familiarity with a foreign tongue it is easy to exoticize them. The Spanish apparently focus upon motion in a verbal phrase because their language is so constructed. Mandarin speakers organize thoughts more vertically than horizontally for the same reason. Koreans pay greater attention to the shape of countable objects because it is explicitly represented in their language.
This is the basis of Cognitive Linguistics, the belief that not only do languages reflect local culture and thought, but that they also inform and influence them. Note that I did not say ‘determine’ them, which would be a strong and largely discredited Sapir-Whorf model, but rather that cognitive influence exists at the level of ‘paying attention’.
Except that I sense this goes out the window to some degree when you are competent with that foreign language and use it widely (if not perfectly) on a day-to-day, face-to-face basis. Let me use my Japanese as an example. Most readers of this blog will have some familiarity with Japanese and know that for example, Japanese does not distinguish between jumping and flying, that expressions of being tired are used as greetings, that roles are used as address forms instead of names (in many, many cases), that there is a different word for water according to whether it’s heated or cooled, that simple verb inflections, even the root lexical item, will change according to the level of honorific required. You can think of hundreds of others I'm sure.
But it doesn’t take long to realize that there is no mystery or no revelation of mysterious underlying cognitive twists when using these terms and patterns, that the uptake and cognitive processing and emotional commitment one wishes to express remains the same, regardless of the language forms used to convey it.
I plan to write more about my doubts about CL here in the future but for the time being I’m wondering if others feel the same way…
4. The best speakers of L2 are clear speakers of L1
If a person is clear-headed and articulate in their mother tongue they tend to be better L2 communicators than those who are muddle-headed in their first language as well. Likewise, people with well-considered, complex thoughts that have been articulated in their minds in L1 will be more effective communicators when employing a foreign tongue.
I see this all the time. Students who ask me how to express something in English that they can’t even articulate clearly in Japanese (or can’t even communicate that need in their first language). Basic communication skills, or a lack thereof, transcend the language they are encoded in. I’m talking about people whose first language conveyance is so vague and undefined (intelligent though they may be) that they can’t even begin to form an adequate frame around those utterances in L2.
As a result, I’ve often told students that if they haven’t developed a clear notion of what they want to express in the mother lingo then there’s no way they’ll be able to do any more than flail away in L2. Attempting ‘to language’ your thoughts in L1 actually helps you to apply foreign language rubrics more accurately and effectively.
This is what Vygotsky was saying, like. Sort of. You know what I mean?
5. There is a local crew of foreign teachers who view the ‘host country’ as the enemy
I’ve heard about cabals of disaffected gringos, gwailos, gaijin, waegook, muzungu, and farangs in just about every country that has a substantial foreign EFL teaching population. The stories seem to follow a set pattern. Such people maintain a strong us-and-them division regarding the locals, while ironically often claiming that they are functionally excluded from full immersion in the local society and are treated as second-class citizens.
This apparently reflects the allegedly innate local racism, nationalism, or chauvinism. Local teachers get all the breaks, they get shafted. The local educational authorities are corrupt, the administrators incompetent, and the local language teachers inept and methodologically in the dark ages. The malcontents feel that local teachers and students should become more ‘like us’ and idealize the progressive nature of their homelands.
They believe the students are not free or critical thinkers. Fellow expats who feel comfortable within their adopted homes are considered to be ‘apologists’, Uncle Toms, even somehow traitorous. They are quite convinced that the country they work in represents the absolute nadir of progress, equality, and human rights. Nearly every local pronouncement is interpreted as a slur, such is their heightened sense of victimization.
But if they are men, they like the local women…
True enough in your world?
6. Students will wait until the last moment on classroom team projects
Let’s say you have a classroom team project and you’ve allotted three classroom periods for preparation and development before performance or submission day. But, until near the end of that third class very little has been done. The team members circle around the topic, even changing topics, until just before the prestige version is due. A lot of hemming and hawing occurs. Vague proposals are put forward, mulled over, but little actual progress appears to be getting made.
But a few days prior to the big day there is a flurry of productive activity and sure enough, sometimes shockingly so, a reasonably good product emerges from the preparatory abyss (although on occasion, the result is predictably mediocre). I often feel that if I had given students twelve weeks to do it, the same dawdling until the final few days would still have occurred. As a result, I now limit the prep time for such projects to ensure that class prep time is also used productively and install very strict and specific prep check schedules.
Now is this just a Japan thing or…?
7. Big boys and big girls
I’m expecting that this one is culturally relative, but I think it’s safe to say that English is considered more of a girl’s subject in Japan (if the language were gendered it would be prefixed with a ‘la’).
In many Japanese institutional scenarios it is the secretary (invariably a woman) or some other Eigo-no-onee-chan ('girl who speaks English') who is expected to handle the English communication. English specialist courses and schools seem to have a far greater number of female than male enrollees. My impression too is that Japanese women tend to pursue English more either as a hobby or actively seek out foreign experiences for learning English than men. Even the stereotypical model ‘local English teacher’ is usually a female (kind of like the image of the sultry Spanish/French teacher in North America).
What I am wondering though is if this actually has a washback effect on how students appropriate English in Japan (or other countries) according to gender. That males may resist learning to some degree if it is considered a subject that women are supposed to be good at—in other words the prejudice or stereotype actually produces what it believes.
I also note that, on average, female students in Japan tend to take better notes, focus upon more significant aspects of the language, and are more linguistically organized than the males. On average, of course. So, it is just me? Or just Japan? Or…?
8. The teacher’s knowledge of obscure, technical items defines them
If you teach ESP (I teach medical students), you’ve probably come across this phenomenon. In reading some technical English prose, a student comes across an obscure technical term that they are not familiar with. Say this happens in a classroom. And let’s say that this term is ‘endometriosis’. And the student asks you what it means.
Now, as an English teacher, even as a teacher of English to medical students, you are not particularly concerned with that term, it is well down the list of must-know lexical items, and in fact you actually don’t know what it means (at best you can make a rough Latinate estimate).
Your pedagogical concerns are far more focused upon having students absorb the ebb and flow of medical discourse as a specialized speech community, helping them to gain both knowledge and sensitivity regarding speech events, such as taking histories, transacting patient information, explaining diagnoses/prognoses etc. as opposed to spoon-feeding them the meaning of every obscure item, most that they could easily look up and understand more fully by themselves.
Yet, if you admit that you don’t know exactly what ‘endometriosis’ is, to most students it is the equivalent of saying that you don’t know what a verb is, or that you have no idea how to start a patient introduction letter. How can you be a qualified English instructor and not know the meaning of every damned term in the field? Forget your skills at classroom management, scaffolding tasks, and gradating language items and skills to enhance the learners’ holistic English skills—if you admit to not knowing that one obscure item, in the eyes of such students, you’re a bum.
Or, again, is it only me who senses this reaction?
I await your comments and responses.